Everyone wants to have a passion that drives them towards success in life. Many self-help books encourage harnessing passion to achieve goals in life. But how do we define passion? What does it mean to have a passion?  According to Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness, the authors of The Passion Paradox (2019), we need to understand passion, it’s working, and how to use its paradoxical mechanisms to successfully achieve goals.

Passion is defined as ‘having a strong emotion or a feeling about something, a drive to achieve or desire to pursue something fervently’. When it comes to fulfilling our dreams in life, everyone uses the term to denote the ‘relentless pursuit of something we love’. 

However, passion is not an easily understood concept. It is multi-faceted, having its roots deep in history. Moreover, the paradoxical sides of passion can lead to depression, burn-outs, and destruction. 

1. The Origins and History of Passion

Historical connotation and evolution of passion

The Passion Paradox by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness

The roots of the word lie in the Latin “passio”, which means “suffering” – a reference to Jesus Christ and his suffering. By the middle ages, its meaning of ‘suffering’ was used to describe the suffering of other people, and by the Renaissance period, poets like Geoffrey Chaucer started using the word to describe surging emotions, giving it non-negative connotations. It was William Shakespeare who finally used the term to describe uncontrollable desire and feeling for a person.

Over the next centuries, people began to apply the word to career choices or activities; eventually leading to the word being used in phrases such as “follow your passion” by the 1970s, giving it the meaning it has in our lives today. 

Physical connotation of passion 

Just as its history, the connotations of passion have a negative and a positive aspect in terms of bodily mechanisms and the physical effects it has on us. Passion, as an emotion is regulated by the release of dopamine, a neurochemical, in our body. Unfortunately, this regulatory effect works in the same way dopamine drives drug addiction. Driven by dopamine, passion makes us crave rewards, just as addicts crave drugs.

Once the reward (or drug) is received, and the craving is satisfied, the hormone dissipates, making us crave for more. Over time, our bodies develop more tolerance for dopamine, making us yearn more. The cycle of yearning, release, craving repeats, increasing our tolerance to a point where rewards (or drugs) stop satisfying us. We crave for higher levels of satisfaction (or doses of drugs), making it a dangerous, vicious cycle.

2. The Best Kind of Passion

We need to further analyse the types of passion to understand the effects of passion.

  • Harmonious Passion – Harmonious passions focus on the joy of pursuit of the goal, rather than the reward and final achievement. This helps us to consistently strive towards our goals despite the obstacles; slowly nurturing our passion, and making it stronger in the long run.
  • Obsessive Passion – Obsessive passion focuses on the reward of success rather than the goal itself. Such passion makes individuals lose sight of their original motivations, and lead to unhealthy pursuits. People go to any length to simply experience the thrill of success. They become addicts to the rush of dopamine that they get with external validation. When obsessive passions fail, the drop in levels of dopamine push people towards sinister risks, depression, and destruction.
  • Passion driven by fear – Fear also motivates passion. However, while fear can be a good motivator at the outset, it can lead to the development of stress and other health side effects. For example, fear of failure can drive an individual to work and learn faster, but over time, it can lead to burnout.

3. Pursuing Passion: Fit Mindset Versus Mastery Mindset

It is essential to understand how we find passion to nurture it. This brings into perspective the difference between – 

  • The fit mindset, and
  • The mastery mindset

The fit mindset

Once we successfully complete a task, we start believing that we have found our passion. We attribute this ‘perfect fit’ to our passion and think that it is the way forward. Researchers call it a ‘fit mindset’ towards passion. While this initially works, passion needs to be nurtured. Unless we do so, we tend to give up the moment we hit an obstacle. 

What we need to do give up the all-or-nothing aspect of passion and nurture it over time without giving up. The authors Steve and Brad suggest that if after every failure, we go looking for a new passion in life, it will only take us deeper into the cycle of achievement, dopamine release (which we mistake for the ‘perfect fit’), failure, and then craving again.

The mastery mindset

Passion should sustain the drive to succeed despite the obstacles we encounter. The mastery mindset focusses on the process of developing passion rather than the end result helping us sustain and cultivate passion over a longer period of time. This way we seek and find pleasure in the smaller achievements that we reach along the way to our goal. 

While following our passion, failure is inevitable. Failure helps to identify and correct our mistakes. Patience and focus on the smaller achievements in the process give us the needed perspective to continuously improve and become a master at our passion.

4. Sustaining Passion: Balance and Self-awareness

One should have a singular focus to achieve mastery in whatever you are passionate about. Once we start following our passion, we tend to go all-in; which requires willpower to maintain a balance between our passion and the rest of our lives. If we go all in, it becomes a self-consuming effort with some amount of suffering. 

Managing balance in life and our passionate endeavor can throw us into the vicious ‘passion’ cycle and lead to developing unhealthy, obsessive, or fear-driven passions. The trick then is to harness self-awareness. A method where we regularly observe our passions and how they affect our emotions.

We can also use the step by step approach. This approach requires clear feasibility of following a passion. It requires an understanding and acceptance of failure to follow a passion and a view that we will not find perfection in our endeavours instantly. This helps us in achieving consistency even with obstacles in the way.

Understanding balance, the need for self-awareness, and using the step by step approach can lead to the sustained development of a passion; one that lasts longer and has a higher rate of success.

Another important aspect of sustaining passion is knowing when to let go. 

Following and cultivating passion eventually defines an individual becomes an integral part of their identity. Therefore, letting go of a passion can lead to distress and emotional turmoil. People need to use coping mechanisms to deal with the withdrawal symptoms of letting a passion go. They need to retain the best practices developed over time by following their passions and use them to fuel new passions and pursuits.


This book teaches people about passion and how to recognize and cultivate it effectively without giving it the power to consume us by turning into an obsession. Stulberg and Magness thoroughly share what drives passion, what happens when it is all-consuming, and how to find a balance so that one’s passion can be pursued without causing burnout or becoming annoying to others.

To pursue a passion and avoid its pitfalls, we must give in to the understanding that following passion is self-consuming and requires a veritable amount of sacrifice. Powered with that knowledge, we can pursue passion for the pure joy of it. The Passion Paradox gives us an unusual but important point of view on doing what we love.